Macartney Embassy

From New World Encyclopedia
Lord Marcartney's embassy, 1793.

The Macartney Embassy, also called the Macartney Mission, was a British embassy to China in 1793. It is named for the first envoy of Great Britain to China, George Macartney, who led the endeavor. The goal of the embassy was to convince Chinese Emperor Qianlong to ease restrictions on trade between Great Britain and China by allowing Great Britain to have a permanent embassy in Beijing, possession of "a small unfortified island near Chusan for the residence of English traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships," and reduced tariffs on traders in Guangzhou.

The Macartney Embassy is one of the British and European embassies sent during the eighteenth century to establish official relations with the Middle Kingdom, their specific goal to enhance commercial exchanges and a presence within China; at least, in the ports. Such an Embassy at the end of the eighteenth century, which represented a turning point in East-West relations, was no ordinary Embassy and had much impact on future developments. Therefore, it requires a study of the historical background and of the attitudes of the representatives involved in the encounter.

The Historical Background

Macartney Embassy to Emperor of China

In the seventeenth century and in the beginning of the eighteenth century, two reigns were long and brought achievements, the reign of Kangxi (1662-1722) in China and the reign of Louis the XIV (1661-1715) in France. Many exchanges continued at that time between China and Europe on the foundation of Matteo Ricci who died in 1610, and his successors.

However, the Question of Rites did strain the promising cultural and scientific cooperation and ruined the confidence that the emperor had in the Europeans due mainly to the Jesuit mission. It is under the reign of Kangxi that the Jesuits Adam Schall von Bell (1592-1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) achieved their remarkable work in Mathematics and in Astronomy, work continued by Antoine Thomas (1644-1709). When the Vatican officially condemned the Chinese rites Kangxi was disappointed. While before he was a man of dialogue and ready to appreciate European culture, he wrote one year before he died:

Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge them from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small and bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.”[1] The emperor Yongzheng (1723-1736) was hostile to Christianity and his edict of 1724 demanded the closure of all churches and that Christians renounce their faith. The Beijing Jesuits alone could keep their positions as advisers on scientific and other matters. Under the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795), matters became worse even if worship continued in Beijing. A severe persecution took place in 1747, with some executions.

Leibniz supported the Jesuits until his death, but although some Jesuits continued to work in Beijing despite their condemnation and the suppression of their order in 1773, the Jesuit mission itself and the true exchange between China and Europe had been seriously compromised. When the Europeans came back to China at the end of the eighteenth century. it was with less lofty motivations than Matteo Ricci. European powers were on the pursuit of their world conquest in terms of land, market, energy, and also looking to demonstrate their superiority and power not just in terms of science as before but in economical and military terms. That was the beginning of the colonial period. Fear rose in the minds of Asians and the negative course reached its peak with the fall of Beijing in 1860, at the hands of European armies. This trauma and these wounds have never been healed.

Previous attempts

Scene on the Grand Canal by W. Alexander, the artist who accompanied the Macartney embassy to Beijing in 1793.

Already in the seventeenth century the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch tried to establish trade activities in China through Macao but it was very difficult. The Canton commercial system of trade had been in place informally. Essentially, the guidelines restricted formal trade to being conducted through a handful of merchants selected by the government. These were commonly called Hong merchants. As trade intensified, disputes broke out between the British traders and the Hong merchants. This forced local authorities to issue edicts formalizing the system of trade and its restrictions.

"In 1715, the East India Company resolved to place their trade with China on a regular footing, to establish a factory with a permanent staff at Canton, and to dispatch their ships at stated seasons…/…From this time on, the history of English trade, and of the English East India Company in China, is the history of the Canton factories."[2] By the late eighteenth century, the British traders were feeling confined by the restrictive system. In an attempt to gain greater trade rights, they lobbied for an Embassy to go before the Emperor and make requests. The first Embassy, the Cathcart Embassy of 1788, was called off with the sudden death of Cathcart before his arrival in China. Another Embassy was quickly organized, with Lord Macartney as its head.

The encounter

Macartney and Chinese Emperor

The Macartney Embassy was set for 1792. It is worth recalling that great changes were happening in the world. The ideas of Enlightenment had spread all over Europe with the inspiration of great minds such as Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Kant, who wrote in 1784, his essay "What is Enlightenment?" When Macartney sailed for China, France was still in the middle of much turmoil.

The decision to dispatch the Earl of Macartney on his mission was made by the British government; indeed, the court of directors of the East India Company were apprehensive … of losing the greater in demanding redress for the less but they offered no opposition; and the embassy sailed from Portsmouth on September 26th 1792 and arrived at Taku at the mouth of the Tientsin river on August 5th 1793. Its reception was in marked contrast with that of any of the previous Portuguese or Dutch embassies and this can be only explained by the dignified bearing, as of a royal envoy, assumed by Lord Macartney himself, and his avoidance of any appearance of being a mere commercial emissary.[3]

The viceroy of Chihli came to greet the British party and boats were supplied to transport the embassy and the six hundred cases of presents to Peking. However, despite the courtesy the Chinese court wanted clearly the foreigners to understand the position of the emperor. The boats and carts used for the transport bore flags with the inscription: "Ambassador bearing tribute from the country of England." Lord Macartney knew about it but made no protest in order to not jeopardize the mission.

The Chinese Empire had always considered all other states to be tributary to itself. However, the Macartney Embassy was given special notice for two reasons. First, it was sent by England on the pretext of commemorating the Emperor's 80th birthday. Second, the Embassy had traveled a great distance, and had not previously come before the Emperor's Court. The matter was complicated somewhat by the Embassy's insistence on meeting with the Emperor without previous announcement, and Macartney's refusal to observe Court traditions. Nonetheless, the Emperor instructed his officials to lead the Embassy to him with the utmost civility.

Before even starting any relation and discussion a crucial point for the Chinese was the observation of the etiquette. All people approaching the emperor should kneel three times and make nine full prostrations. Lord Macartney wanted to show respect to the Emperor but could not accept the prostrations. It was finally decided that he would bend on one knee, like in front of the English king.


One of Peking's Western Gates

The embassy was ultimately a failure.

Of business, not a single point was settled, or even discussed, from the arrival of the embassy in August until its departure from Peking on October 7th, nor was any further settlement reached in the interval between that date and its departure from Canton. One object was a mitigation of the restraints and exactions on trade at Canton; these continued until they were removed by war. Another aim was to secure liberty to trade at places other than Canton.... This was peremptorily refused. Not one real advantage was gained…[4]

In consequence of this failure the British set another embassy that of Lord Amherst in 1816, with the hope of establishing direct relations between the two governments and better trade conditions. The long delay until 1816 is explained by the fact that Europe had to confront its own problems with the outbreak of the Napoleon's wars on the continent and the blockade of England by Napoleon and numerous naval battles as well between England and France.

Clash of political perspectives

The Macartney embassy gives the opportunity of observing how political relationships restarted in the nineteenth century between China and Europe. It is difficult to understand the failure of the mission if we just consider the problem of etiquette like the prostrations in front of the emperor. Much deeper there was no real preparation of encounter but the decision to reach commercial goals. When the British and the Chinese met, it became a dialogue of the deaf in which each side was focusing only on one's point of view.

The failure of 1793 reflects an ancient failure of the Europeans throughout the eighteenth century, with the condemnation of the Chinese rites, the loss of the Jesuit mission and consequently the disbelief of the Chinese in the Europeans. No reflection had been done on past events. No European was in the position of a Ricci to make a bridge between the two cultures and to guide toward a mutual appreciation allowing to set the foundation of credible commercial relations. On the contrary the approach of British and other European governments became an approach of forcing the opening of China at the cost of a war if necessary.

There were responsibilities on both sides. On one hand, Lord Macartney came to meet the emperor with the conviction of a European superiority:

Macartney and his associates came with perceptions about trade and national intercourse which were certain to cause friction with their Chinese hosts. As heirs of Galileo, Newton and Locke and contemporaries of the French Enlightenment philosophers, they regarded themselves as representatives of a modern, rational and specifically scientific world outlook…/… They lived in a world in which Adam Smith had worked out the advantages of trade, James Watts had harnessed the power of steam…/… Buoyed by such developments, the Macartney mission came to China not just to promote trade and diplomacy, but to assess China's status as a rational order and to collect data on matters of interest to scientific as well as political colleagues. These latter goal were to some extent achieved, although not in a manner favorable to China's reputation in Europe.[5]

On the other hand, Qianlong had not the same relation with Europeans as Ksngxi. He had Italian artists depicting court life and ceremonies through their paintings and liked Western scientific instruments. He ordered the construction of the summer palace in the Western style. But he remained concentrated on how to keep control of his vast empire, especially on the Western border, and was seeing other sovereigns as inferior to him. He insisted on Confucian rites but failed to realize the good that could be brought to China in the long term by considering the proposition of exchange with the Europeans. It was the first time that a Chinese emperor was facing a high representative of European kings but unfortunately the chance was not taken.

According to recent scholarship:

The problems of the Macartney mission resulted from increasingly divergent global interpretive and managerial systems: Imperial Confucianism on the one hand… and European Enlightenment ideas about law and rationality and their application by British leaders to the reorganization of British power in India and Asia on the other hand… The Manchu-controlled Chinese state system had its own goals for the management and control of foreign power, which Macartney's mission intentionally sought to change. Thus Qianlong and his aides ended up spending much of their time figuring out how to get Macartney and company out of China.[6]

After the conclusion of the embassy, Qianlong sent a letter to King George III, explaining in greater depth the reasons for his refusal to grant the requests of the embassy. In his letter to king George III Qianlong said for example:

I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfill the duties of the state: Strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under heaven, and kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures. This then is my answer to your request to appoint a representative at my Court, a request contrary to our dynastic usage, which would only result in inconvenience to yourself.

Until that time Chinese artifacts like porcelaines had been popular in Europe and European scientific instruments rose a lot of interest for the Chinese but there was not yet a direct encounter between people besides the missionaries who usually spent their life and die in China having identified themselves with the Chinese. Therefore an enormous amount of work needed to be done on the mentalities to establish diplomatic and economical relations.

The Macartney Embassy is historically significant because it marked a missed opportunity by the Chinese to move toward greater trade with the Western world, and thus, toward industrialization. This failure to industrialize early would continue to plague the Qing Dynasty as it encountered increasing foreign resistance and internal unrest during the nineteenth century. But on the reverse this event is an occasion for the Europeans to reassess their own history and the role which they played in the evolution of modern China.


  1. Dun Jen Li, China in Transition, 1517-1911 (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969).
  2. Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (Taipei: Ch'eng Wen Pub. Co., 1978).
  3. Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (Taipei: Ch'eng Wen Pub. Co, 1978).
  4. Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (Taipei: Ch'eng Wen Pub. Co., 1978).
  5. John R. Watt, Qianlong Meets Macartney: Collision of Two World Views. A Dramatization for Middle and High School Students (New England China Network, 1997).
  6. Ibid.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cranmer-Byng, John Launcelot. 1961. Lord Macartney's Embassy to Peking in 1793 from Official Chinese Documents. Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong.
  • Esherick, Joseph W. 1998. "Cherishing Sources from Afar." Modern China. 24 (2):135.
  • Hevia, James Louis. 1995. Cherishing Men From Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822316251
  • Peyrefitte, Alain. 1992. The Immobile Empire. New York: A.A. Knopf. ISBN 9780394586540
  • Peyrefitte, Alain. 1993. The Collision of Two Civilizations: The British Expedition to China in 1792-4. London: Harvill. ISBN 9780002726771
  • Pritchard, Earl Hampton and L. Cranmer-Byng. 2000. The Instructions of the East India Company to Lord Macartney on his Embassy to China and his Reports to the Company, 1792-4. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415189989


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.